The numbers are astounding. Kids and adolescents all over the country are struggling with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and a slew of other emotion-based issues at a staggering frequency. But why? We have blamed video games. We’ve thrown social media under the bus and overscheduling has also held the spotlight for a number of years. But one thing we haven’t considered (because we likely struggle from the same issue) is that as a culture we are no longer able to handle uncomfortable emotions.
In our “feel good now” society we can get virtually everything we want (Amazon Prime is a great example of this) when we want it and have very few opportunities to feel discomfort. We don’t have to wait for much and if we feel uncomfortable feelings, we grab our phones and fall into a world where we don’t have to think. Or feel. The next time you’re in a waiting room, look around. How many people have their heads buried in their phones? Is this a problem with technology? No, I would argue. It’s a problem with us. No one really wants to feel the anxiety of waiting for a doctor to come out or have to deal with what their mind will create if it’s free to do what it wants.
Therein lies the problem. We have lost our ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings ourselves and in doing so, have created environments where our kids don’t have to deal with them either. It’s not that this desire to keep our kids from struggling is rooted in anything but love but in loving so much that we remove kids from the very things that will make them stronger, we debilitate them. We request teacher changes, we take them out of activities they don’t like and search for the right situation where they can be happy. We lead them to believe that happy is the standard instead of helping them understand that happy doesn’t come in every situation. It is a treat, a privilege, an opportunity that isn’t delivered with every moment.
This is a very different strategy than our parents used. The tough love, “you’ll be fine” and “what does not kill you makes you stronger” era is over and maybe that too was not the right approach. We need to add empathy to that equation. We need to be empathetic with our kids but also allow them to feel the disappointments, the struggles, the failures that life will inevitably bring. We need to allow ourselves to feel them too. As a parent myself, I never want to see my child struggle not because I don’t think it’s good for him, it’s partly because I don’t want to deal with the discomfort. I don’t like uncomfortable feelings any more than the next person.
Maybe what we’re missing is teaching kids that life isn’t just about feeling good, having things go the way you want them, winning all the awards, having all the friends, but in managing expectations. They’re not going to like every teacher, make an A on every test or have everyone like them. We can empathize with them in their frustration but also let them know that within the frustrations and disappointments, there’s still some good in there. To expect that a day will be perfect will only set them up for failure. To expect a day to be manageable will set them up for success. Instead of “will this make you happy?” we might want to ask, “are you able to handle this?” The ability to manage uncomfortable emotions will help them begin develop the emotional muscles they will need in order to stand on their own someday.
Roger Cohen says: Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.
Something to keep in mind while we all navigate this world of feeling discomfort, trying our best to avoid it but also knowing that it will create a sense of strength within us that will sustain us through even the most difficult times.